AIKEN - If there's such a thing as a good place to get a speeding ticket, it just might be within the city limits of Aiken.
The city continues to fill the classroom for its First Offender program, which dismisses traffic tickets for first-time offenders who take the city's defensive driving class. Aiken officials want to create safer drivers and reduce accidents.
Michael, an embarrassed speeder caught driving 15 mph faster than the posted limit two months ago, heard about the program's benefits and quickly signed up for a July session.
"You'd be stupid not to take the class," said the 18-year-old driver, who asked that his last name not be used. "The ticket is erased and nobody ever knows you had it. And the insurance companies don't raise your rates, which is a pain if you're under 25."
After a year, city officials and public safety officers say the program is proving to be a success for Aiken drivers. Classes are booked through October, and drivers are returning from Augusta, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia to reap the rewards. At the same time, they are learning about the dangers of drunken driving, the proper use of seat belts and handling road rage.
The city is the only local agency offering to throw out traffic tickets. Drivers in the rest of Aiken County and throughout Augusta and Richmond County must pay their fines or fight their tickets in court.
"Escaping the ticket is one thing, but it is the points that really makes the difference to a lot of drivers," said Brad Terry, an Aiken Public Safety officer and class instructor.
Aiken City Manager Roger LeDuc said the program is not a soft-on-crime idea but an effort to save lives and reduce accidents. During a review of procedures in spring 1999, city leaders decided that traffic tickets weren't stopping the cycle of poor driving, he said.
"We asked ourselves: What could be done to make our drivers more safety conscious? What could be done to reduce accidents and reduce damage to property and to people?" Mr. LeDuc said.
The city manager had studied a First Offender's program during a conference in Illinois, and he proposed the same for Aiken.
Now, when an officer stops drivers for a moving violation - usually speeding, but also for other offenses such as failure to yield, disregarding a traffic signal or careless driving - they are given a second chance.
Here are the rules: Motorists who are stopped for their first moving violation in Aiken in three years can have the ticket forgiven after taking the eight-hour defensive driving course. Tickets received outside the city aren't included.
"They may have 10 previous tickets," Public Safety Investigator David Savage said. "If they don't have a previous ticket in Aiken, we'll teach them."
If drivers take the eight-hour Saturday course taught by Aiken Public Safety officers and pay a $40 fee for the class and materials, the city's traffic ticket will be dropped and no points will be reported to a driver's insurance company.
In fact, drivers who take the National Safety Council-certified course are eligible to have up to four additional points dropped from their driving record, Investigator Savage said.
Officer Terry said the program began with the idea of giving young drivers the kind of training they might not be exposed to. But older drivers began asking if they could take the class, too, he said.
The 30-person classes began to fill up, and the Aiken Department of Public Safety now teaches about 60 people a month. And while any resident can take the course to have the points on their license reduced, Officer Terry suggests they call Aiken Technical College to take the same course.
"We hope that everyone on the road will take the course," Officer Terry said. "But our program is designed to get someone in a defensive driving course while we have their attention. Just after they get a ticket, many people are very receptive to the kind of information we give them."
The class runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every other Saturday, and participants are given a variety of lessons. First, they see a defensive driving video from the National Safety Council, then a tape from the state's Highways or Dieways campaign. Next comes a sobering video on felony DUIs told by drivers who killed people - sometimes whole families - while driving drunk. A fourth video is on occupant restraint, which explains the proper use of seat belts, air bags and child safety restraints.
Participants also receive classroom work on driving situations, such as what to do about tailgaters, speeders, slow drivers, bad weather and other dangerous situations. They are instructed in the dangers of road rage, how to deal with it in other drivers and how to control their own emotions during driving.
The course has been extremely popular, Officer Terry said. He and his three fellow instructors - Investigator Savage, Sgt. Wendell Edwards and Cpl. Charles Barranco - have taught drivers who were ticketed while visiting Aiken and came back to town from faraway states.
The numbers are another strength, Mr. LeDuc said. With more than 700 people a year taking the course, there will be thousands of graduates on the city's roads in a few years.
Public Safety Chief Pete Frommer said it is too early for statistics on whether the program is reducing accidents in Aiken, but he said he believes the training will be beneficial over time.
"What we're trying to do is avoid accidents," the chief said. "Once people gain this knowledge, the next time they get behind the wheel of a car, they will be more aware of what is happening around them and how to handle your vehicle. When that begins to happen over time, then we believe we will have fewer accidents."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.
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